Note: the following contains spoilers for Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Hopefully by now you have familiarized yourself with RF’s policy on spoilers? Good. Let’s proceed to the debate:
Frank: Max, it’s been nearly two months since Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens was quietly released in select theaters. We went together a few days after opening night and, I believe, both came away with positive feelings. As many fans and critics have noted, The Force Awakens not only utilizes the iconography of the original trilogy but also some major story elements, specifically A New Hope (a title I hate using but will for clarity’s sake). Did the level of borrowing work for you or would you rather have seen a wholly original plot?
Max: First, I’d like to start by describing my favorite moment of the whole evening, which was you bursting into the theatre after driving three hours on snow covered roads back to our hometown and plopping down in the seat in the exact moment that the familiar blare of the Star Wars theme began and the big yellow letters lit up the screen. It was a very pure moment, maybe even a Christmas Miracle. That set the tone for an enjoyable movie-going experience for me. Were there a ton of call-backs to the original films in both plot and substance? Sure. Did it work? Yes.
Frank: You might say I “made the Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs” to get to the theater in time. While I liked the movie quite a bit, the story was a glaring weak point for me. I was happy enough to be back in the world of Star Wars, but I couldn’t help but feel a bit exasperated by all the beats from A New Hope: lonely kid on dessert planet finds droid with vital information, aged major character is killed in an act of sacrifice while the young hero looks on, another damn Death Star (sorry “Starkiller Base”, totally different).
Max: Admittedly Abrams hit the Star Wars “themes” pretty hard. As far as the Death Star reboot, I choose to believe that the Empire is locked into a long-term contract with the same shitty engineering firm that only knows how to do one thing (and sealing critical maintenance shafts is not it). So yes, this looked really familiar for devoted Star Wars fans, but you could almost feel a collective sigh of relief (both in the theatre and on the internet) in that familiarity. Fans needed this movie to allow themselves to reinvest in the franchise.
Frank: Yes, certainly it was nice to be seeing a new Star Wars film that could make you feel something besides appalled, but for me the feeling of familiarity should have come from the setting, not the plot. Of course we want to see the three main characters from the original trilogy (actually four, shout out to Chewbacca), and we want to see the Millennium Falcon; these are the things we love. The only moment when you and I locked eyes in excitement was when we heard the familiar voice of Admiral Ackbar garbling something about strategy. I don’t think anybody was saying “thank god they’re blowing up another world-destroying space station like they’ve done twice before”.
Max: Well, you knew from the moment they showed that giant thing and its resemblance to the Death Star(s) that it was going to get blown up in short order. So while technically that is the plot, I don’t think it’s where the movie was trying to create its intrigue. It is certainly not what people were talking about after seeing the film. “Where the hell has Luke been? And who is Rey?” were the new elements that I think they mixed in nicely among the other fairly well-trodden Star Wars-type plot points. They had to blow something up because it’s 2016 and that’s what we want in our blockbuster sci-fi or action movies. But that wasn’t the only element of the plot.
Frank: Right, but I think that the Starkiller Base element should have been excised from the film altogether. There should have been more time developing what the Star Wars universe is now, going forward. Like what was that republic that just got incinerated? Also, I’d like to know what was going on with Poe Dameron between his crashing the highjacked tie-fighter and his showing up on D’Qar (which is not Yavin-4!). Also, Captain Phasma seems like she’s supposed to be a much cooler character. What’s going on there? The big “stopping the bad guys” plot could have been saved for the later entries.
Max: I have to say that I, too, was surprised that Captain Phasma was woefully under-utilized. But in a way, I kind of liked that all this stuff had clearly happened since the audience’s last glimpse into the Star Wars universe. It was a very effective tease for the next installment. So Luke ran a Jedi school (presumably called the “Little Skywalkers Urban Achievers Program”)? Han and Leia had a falling out? Rey was abandoned by…someone? And a note on that, if you’re going to leave a child to fend for themselves, it seems like you could do it on a planet with water. Was Endor not an option?
Frank: That brings us to the element of the film that worked really well for me: the new characters. The performances by Daisy Ridley, Adam Driver, John Boyega, and Oscar Isaac got me really excited to spend the next two films in the trilogy with the new arrivals. Specifically, Ridley, who is magnetic as Rey. It felt like we were watching the birth of a star. In terms of the old crew, Harrison Ford is still a movie star, no matter how much he grumbles about being Han Solo (two things we know about Harrison Ford: 1. He does not want to talk about “Star Wars”, and 2. He doesn’t give a shit what you think of his earring). Carrie Fischer should have been given more to do, and Abrams smartly limited Mark Hammill’s lines to none at all.
Max: Well, I get the sense they won’t be able to hide him (literally) in the next movie, which almost certainly will feature new plot points to satisfy those with your same views of The Force Awakens. When you think about the recent history of the franchise and the insane down payment Disney made for the rights to get into the Star Wars game, a very “safe and comfortable” first installment was almost inevitable. Abrams delivered on that while still entertaining at a high level. So for me, the borrowing of plot points worked, and now I can go into the next movie excited for what happens next.
Frank: I, too, look forward to the next entry. If there is one thing we know about J.J. Abrams, it is that he can be trusted as a temporary caretaker of a franchise (Star Wars, Star Trek, Mission Impossible), but he’s not a home run hitter. Ryan Johnson (Brick, Looper) is up next, and he is a home run hitter. I give The Force Awakens a “B”, which is a vast improvement over the prequel trilogy.
Max: I didn’t hate the prequel trilogy as much as everyone else in the universe claims to, but that is as far as I will go to defend them. Whether it’s warranted or not, Star Wars fans felt abused by the prequels. To me, a good analogy for the fan’s relationship to this run of Star Wars movies is a shelter dog. They had a crappy situation but are now brought into a new home, one that has the potential to be great. Still, it’s their nature to be fearful and nervous about what’s going on but also excited. So there is this initial period where you need to re-earn trust. Once that’s done, you can start having some real fun.
Frank: There are worse films than the prequel trilogy. I have searched my feelings, and I know it to be true. Truthfully, I will be satisfied if Episode VIII only rises to the level of The Force Awakens. I look forward to discussing it with you in 2017, my friend. May the force be with you.
Max: And also with you.